No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created “Social Climates”

Kurt Lewin , Ronald Lippitt & Ralph K. White (1939): Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created “Social Climates”, The Journal of Social Psychology, 10:2, 269-299

This classic research by Kurt Lewin and colleagues focused on the dynamics of group behavior and the impact of leadership styles. This was a summary of a series of experimental studies on group life. Lewin and colleagues explored questions related to various patterns of group behavior, including rebellion against authority, scapegoating, apathetic submission to authoritarian rule, and intergroup conflicts.

The research involved experiments with groups of children engaging in activities such as theatrical mask-making. They had one group led by an authoritarian leader and another led by a democratic leader. The study raised questions about the effectiveness and impact of different leadership styles on group dynamics. The researchers took steps to control for various social variables, including the personality of group members, interpersonal relationships, intellectual and socio-economic status, and personality characteristics. They aimed to equate the groups as closely as possible. To make the results more robust, the researchers implemented experimental controls. These controls included variations in leadership techniques, different leaders, and changes in the club activity, ensuring a comprehensive examination of the variables at play. The authors collected a wide range of data to analyze group behavior comprehensively. This data included pre-club information, observations of behavior during the experiments, and information from interviews with children, parents, and teachers. The researchers used various observation techniques to capture the dynamics of group behavior. They recorded interactions between group members, group structure, stenographic records of conversation, and interpretive accounts of significant actions. They also included movie records of club life. In addition to in-club observations, the researchers gathered information through interviews with children, parents, and teachers, Rorschach tests, and post-experiment conversations with the children. This data aimed to correlate individual behavior within the club with external social and personality factors. The article describes the introduction of observers into the club setting, highlighting the importance of minimizing observer effects. It also discusses the development of group test situations to better understand the social dynamics within each group.


In the second experiment, which explored different dynamics in autocratic and democratic social atmospheres, sociological or group-centered and psychological or individual-centered interpretations were given. Sociological analyses in this experiment consider factors such as the volume of social interaction, the nature of club activities, out-group relationships, in-group orientation, leader-group relationships, and group differences in language behavior. The psychological approach involves examining the relationship between home background and club behavior, patterns of individual reactions to changes in social atmosphere, correlations between group stratification and social behavior, and more.

In the first experiment, authoritarian club members displayed aggressive domination toward one another, while democratic club interactions were more friendly and fact-minded. Differences in overt hostility and ego-involved language behavior existed between the two groups.

In autocratic leadership, some autocratic groups showed very high aggression, while others showed extremely low aggression compared to democracies. This finding raises questions about the underlying dynamics in autocratic atmospheres. Lewin and colleagues provide evidence suggesting that the low level of aggression in some autocratic groups is not due to a lack of frustration. They discuss the effects of leader presence and absence, as well as interviews with the boys themselves, which indicated their relative dislike for the autocratic leader, irrespective of the leader's personality.

Different types of behavior were observed in authoritarian situations, such as strikes, rebellious acts, reciprocal aggression among members, scapegoat attacks, release behavior after decreased leader pressure, and aggression against impersonal substitute hate objects. These behaviors shed light on the complexities of group dynamics in autocratic environments.

Intergroup conflicts or wars existed in two cases where conflicts erupted following intrusion by a hostile stranger, absence of respected adults, and a lack of alternative engaging group activities.


Lewin and colleagues emphasize the complexity of the problem of aggression and apathy in group dynamics and aim to approach it from a field theoretical perspective. They differentiate between aggression within a group and aggression against an outgroup. Aggression in their experiments was spontaneous and emotional, not the result of external orders or directives. They discuss four key factors contributing to spontaneous aggression: (1) Tension was created by various factors, such as criticism from outsiders and the behavior of group leaders, especially in autocratic situations. (2) A lack of free movement space can lead to increased pressure, which, in turn, contributes to tension. (3) Increased tension can lead to aggression, and this emotional expression of aggression can be observed when there is underlying tension. (4) The rigidity of group structure is a significant factor. In groups with rigid structures, leaving the group becomes more challenging, and this may lead to higher tension and potentially more aggression.

How a culture handles aggression is crucial. Cultural patterns and social habits play a significant role in determining when and how aggression might occur. Lewin and colleauges conclude that aggression is influenced by various interrelated factors, and a field theoretical approach is essential to understand the complex dynamics involved. They also caution against hasty generalizations when applying experimental results to broader life situations and emphasize the importance of considering the specific patterns and context of a given situation.